Andy Holden – The Rock

When Andy Holden worked as a studio assistant for Jason Rhoades, he learned a lot. Out of all the comments, reflections and advice he received, one remark stood out. When Rhoades said to him ‘Andy, you don’t understand scale’, this statement began to function as a curious imperative. In effect, what would it mean to understand scale? When Holden had purloined a tiny fragment of one of Egypt’s great pyramids, years before the encounter with Rhoades, this small act took on gigantic proportions for him. So large, in fact, that he was compelled to later magnify the humble rock to more than ten thousand times its size. The scale of the fragment and the scale of the crime were not proportional, and the artist had to follow the metric that his conscience dictated.


After the theft of the rock, indeed, Holden was chastised by his father. If everyone did that, he was told, there would be no pyramids left. Each small part would deplete and then dissolve the whole. The tiny stone thus became the emblem of guilt, the sign not only of his own transgressive act but of the possibility of  a far greater unravelling. Fifteen years later, he would return it to Egypt, yet not without embarking on his own work of magnification.


This ‘undoing’ of an act was especially fascinating to Freud, who discussed it in his case history of the Ratman. Seeing a stone on the pavement, he imagined that someone might trip over it and so discarded it into the road. But then the terrible thought forced itself into his mind that perhaps his beloved’s carriage might run over it and meet with an accident. And so he moved it back from the road to the pavement, until the torturous thought of someone tripping over it would set the cycle in motion once more. For Freud, this mechanism of ‘undoing’ responded to the point of an illicit thought, as if to try to annul a murderous wish directed to those we love.


Yet Holden is not a pure Freudian. Where the repeated process of ‘undoing’ usually results in paralysis – how could the Ratman, after all, ever leave the roadside? – here it generates movement and change. Rather than simply suffering the effects of conscience, Holden exploits them, creating and inventing from them. It is surely no accident that the character of Charlie Brown appears so often in his work, since this is a boy who is always being told what to do. Holden has collected all the expressions he could find of Charlie’s morose face in these situations, as if the point of superegoic reprimand becomes less the cause of inertia than the motor of production.


Perhaps the same principle operates in Holden’s ornithological lectures, performed with his father. Most ornithological research, he explains, is about breeding habits, neglecting the fascinating and crucial question of nests. These expand as the young birds grow, and as the father talks about nesting behaviour, his son speaks about the materials used in the nest. This mise en scene acts as another superegoic clinamen: the son is not the passive object of the father’s instruction, but finds a space connected to yet different from his father’s speech. And where the horizon of the father’s speech is the problem of sexual reproduction, for Holden it is the materials of creation, of making.


The expansion that so fascinates Holden could be linked to the reduction that he performed on the pyramid all those years ago. In one instance, removing an object to create a lack, and in the other, exploring how an object can be built up out of small things. This, of course, is the work of the birds, as they diligently and methodically add fragments to create an ever-expanding whole. The fact that in the ornithological lectures Holden is in the place of ‘the young’ makes this an even richer project, and one might even conjecture that the tiny fragment added to the world is none other than himself.


With the pyramid, after all, the artist was not alone with his rock but, as he confessed, within the judgemental gaze of his father. The inflation of the stone must have added to its value, perhaps the value of being something that shouldn’t be where it now was, that should be back where it belonged. This out-of-placeness, perhaps, echoes the very discord of a child born into the world. As Holden says, the big secret of ornithology is that what really matters is reproduction, not nests.


Can’t we see this out-of-placeness warmly and savagely explored in so many of Holden’s other works, from the strange, glutinous beer bottles to the image of an amorphous blobby mass next to his elderly grandmother, as if these objects embodied exactly this dimension of both what shouldn’t be there and what, ultimately, is there.